Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Should Campfires be Banned on the Adirondack Forest Preserve?

The Giant’s Washbowl seen from Nubble Cliff Recently, I was returning from Nubble Cliff in the Giant Mountain Wilderness when I passed a tent on the southeast shore of the Giant’s Washbowl and heard someone breaking branches or dead trees, presumably gathering wood for a campfire.

Campfires are an Adirondack tradition. Who doesn’t like a fire when sleeping under the stars? Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking that this was not good for the environment. Rather, it was destructive.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation banned campfires in the eastern High Peaks for a reason. Over time, campers collecting wood left patches of forest virtually denuded. DEC banned campfires at 11 tent sites near waterways in the Essex Chain region lest the same thing happen there. (Fires also are prohibited on roads, trails, and parking areas on state lands.)

The department says damage to natural resources also is occurring at campsites near ponds and popular trails in the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest. The following is from a draft unit management plan for this part of the Forest Preserve:

“Some people may not understand why removal of dead wood is considered to be a problem. It is seen as a problem by land managers because dead wood provides important habitat for a variety of wildlife, slows erosion, and allows nutrients to be recycled back into the soil. In heavily-used areas, dead wood is collected and burned faster than it is created, [and] this results in an ever widening area of damage from people gathering wood. Secondary effects of wood gathering include damage to living vegetation and removal of standing dead trees, which is illegal.”

Nevertheless, DEC is not recommending a blanket ban on campfires in the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest. Instead, visitors will be encouraged to use cook stoves and refrain from building fires.

With today’s lightweight stoves, backpackers do not need to build fires to cook food or heat water. The main reason for campfires, aside from roasting marshmallows, is that people like them. They’re a connection to our primitive past.

But if campfires are unnecessary and if they lead to environmental degradation, has the time come to ban them throughout the Forest Preserve? Or at least in the popular areas of the Preserve? A ban could make an exception for roadside campsites to which people bring their own firewood.

DEC has never considered an all-out ban, though it has issued temporary bans during exceptionally dry periods. No doubt a ban or tougher regulations would be unpopular, but these are questions worth asking.

Photo of Giant’s Washbowl as seen from Nubble Cliff by Phil Brown.

This post first was first published on Phil Brown’s Outtakes Blog at Adirondack Explorer.

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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

21 Responses

  1. Taras says:

    I’ve seen the designated campsites along the eastern shore of Giant’s Washbowl. I recall someone built a fire next to a boulder that also happened to be the precise spot marked for camping.

    I’m OK with a campfire ban being limited to areas of intensive use (and not the entire Forest Preserve). For example, I believe it should be extended to the Giant and Dix Mountain Wilderness areas which contain very popular trails to several 46er peaks. Several campsites come to mind where campers are resorting to more than just “dead and down” wood.

    A very good example of misguided “logging” can be found at the Santanoni Lean-to (a.k.a. Bradley Pond lean-to). It lies in the Santanoni Mountains Tract. There are many small stumps within human “browsing range” of the lean-to. I genuinely understand the appeal of a campfire but it comes with responsibilities, especially if you’re at a high-traffic site.

  2. Justin Farrell says:

    Struggling for some new writing material ? ?
    In high-use areas such as those mentioned in the column above…sure, a campfire ban might make sense.
    In other areas of the Adirondacks that receive far less public traffic & firewood gathering pressure….no, I don’t think so. I think it would be completely unwarranted.

  3. Paul says:

    If you had reasonable limits on the number of hikers the land wouldn’t get denuded. Even with plenty of fires. Trees are a renewable resource and if managed properly can supply all the fire wood you need with no real notice of it removal. On FP land it is dead wood only so it all gets racked up and then there is nothing. I have a 50 acre wood lot that I cut at least 5 full chords of wood every year. It just keeps on coming back! It was a great summer for wood growth.

  4. Paul says:

    Also, lots of places its easy to bring in local firewood. The Saranac Islands for example – banning fires there is not at all necessary.

  5. Scott says:

    I wish the article mentioned the risk of wildfire from unnatended unquenched campfires and from campfires placed on decomposing leaves.I think the DEC should increase the fine and have a mandatory minimum fine for unnatended unquenched campfires and the rangers need to have strict enforcement. We should not tolerate unattended unquenched campfires.

    • Dennis says:

      I agree 100%. But who will do the enforcing? The same level of DEC rangers (including officers) for the last 10 years – 134 for the whole state! A recent article says 17 of them were involved in the search for Skip Baker. And obviously, search and rescue activities consume more and more of their time. So will the state continue to do whatever it can to increase visitor volume and continue to ignore enforcement? 10 years and counting!

    • Boreas says:


      Enforcement is the key to many of the problems in the FP. We can ban this and regulate that, but without enforcement it is all wishful thinking. Not much is going to change until we have sufficient ranger staffing. If everyone reading this sent an email a day to the governor, perhaps it would get his attention.

      My feeling is that fires in the HPW are not a good idea because of a general lack of dead, dry wood near approved campsites. But if fires there are not banned outright, at least the dead wood regulations should be strictly enforced. As far as other areas of the park, I feel strict enforcement of the dead wood regulations should be enough, except in dry conditions requiring temporary bans.

      Perhaps another option would be for popular forested campsites to be purposely de-limbed up to about 8 feet for a significant radius around the site. In addition, a few small trees could be felled and left for wood. One way or another, without enforcement, trees around a campsite are going to be damaged by people wanting fires. Is it better to allow uneducated campers to deface and wound trees – potentially killing them by pulling down green limbs, or to have knowledgeable staff properly cut the limbs and cull the trees? Perhaps something like this has been tried before?

  6. Todd Eastman says:

    Phil, to answer your question…

    … no.

    There’s lots of FP out there that can take occasional campfires.

    Better solution, ban camping in the High Peaks, they are all reasonable day hikes.

  7. Denise Baylis says:

    I think that you may need to have a ban for a period of time. Intensive education about how a forest grows/renews & the habitat. I think that some of the people who now think camping is great aren’t really camping, they take nearly their whole house with them & move it to a spot near a river/creek & feel they are roughing it. I’m not sure that they even think about picking up wood, maybe they think that they are helping ? More information should be given – more signs regarding fires maybe? I’ve been taught since I was very young (I’m 64 now) & grew up here. Maybe it’s a generational thing ?

  8. Tim-Brunswick says:

    Justin Farrell echoed my very first reaction when I read the title of the article by none other than “Phil Brown”….go figure!! ( Gee wonder what I can come up with to fill up the space in today’s “Explorer”/”Almanac”??)

    Hey let’s just plain ban every activity in the Adirondacks and get this nit-picking, micro-managing approach routine over with once and for all. I mean….Really…”camping” w/o a “camp-fire”.


  9. Ruth Olbert says:

    As I understood it, campfires were allowed at the non -lakefront sites of the Essex Chain Property. Am I wrong?

  10. geogymn says:

    Keep writing Phil, I enjoy both the AA and AE. Thanks!

  11. Charlie S says:

    Tim-Brunswick says: “Hey let’s just plain ban every activity in the Adirondacks and get this nit-picking, micro-managing approach routine over with once and for all. I mean….Really…”camping” w/o a “camp-fire…..Unbelievable!!”

    I hear you Tim but what are we supposed to do? Allow activities that are going to denude patches of forest just because we need to follow tradition? I couldn’t imagine camping without a fire but as Dylan would sing the times they are a changing.

  12. Tom Leustek says:

    Banning campfires would be a pity. A small twig fire poses no environmental threat and campers who use the lightly traveled regions of the adirondack’s go there to appreciate peace and quiet and a small campfire. But a regional ban in heavily used areas makes sense. I never heard anyone complaining during temporary bans. Candle lanterns are nearly as much fun to sit around.

    It is an unfortunate reality the some people “use” the Adirondack’s, . Last month I visited Plumbly’s Landing on the Northville-Lake Placid trail to find that a yahoo had recently stripped huge sections of bark off of several large birch’s. What a shame. But no greater shame than the rampant development of vacation homes everywhere on Long Lake. Nature is on the run in our beloved Adirondack’s.

  13. dan t. says:

    I can’t help but wonder if writing about how cool every little nook and cranny you can find or think of is, and then encourage more and more people to go trample it might be not good for the environment, but rather destructive? I guess if we’re all sporting the latest tech wear and gas powered stoves it would be a lot better.

  14. Doug says:

    A blanket ban is unwarranted. Indeed a ban on fires in the Eastern High Peaks was needed to recover from decades of intense use on fragile sites and maybe that is needed in the Giant Mountain Wilderness also, but certainly not in the entire Forest Preserve. That would be a big overreach and surely unnecessary.
    Try education before regulation.

  15. Roger Dziengeleski says:

    Buy land for all the people of NYS and others to use; then make it as unattractive as possible for them to use it. That is indeed the contradiction that is the Adirondack Forest Preserve. Let the people who are willing to endure micro parking lots and muddy poorly maintained trails at least have a campfire. The area of land impacted by the collection of dead wood for fires is miniscule when compared to the total amount of public and private forest land inside the blue line. It is extremely unlikely that decay organisms and other fauna would be threatened within the region.

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